How James May and Jeremy Clarkson became the unlikely faces of a cryptocurrency scam

Deepfake adverts using Jeremy Clarkson and James May's likenesses to sell cryptocurrency are currently circulating the internet
Deepfake adverts using Jeremy Clarkson and James May's likenesses to sell cryptocurrency are currently circulating the internet

The presenters of The Grand Tour are being taken for a ride, but there is nothing automotive about it. Instead, they are falling victim to criminal schemes. Recently, all three – Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond – have found themselves being deepfaked by scammers trying to sell cryptocurrency online. Ads bearing the presenters’ likenesses are popping up all over the web, potentially tricking innocent browsers into parting with their money, swayed by the reassuring imprimatur of a beloved car enthusiast.

In March, May, 61, tweeted that he had been made aware of fake ads on X (formerly Twitter) using a real image of him, alongside a made-up transcript in which he extolled the merits of a cryptocurrency.

“I realise that my face has appeared in a number of scam posts about crypto currencies and retirement planning,” he wrote. “It’s all balls, obviously, but, since I’m here, my genuine financial advice is to say ‘bo---cks to it’, and go to the pub.” He followed it up with posts saying that his fellow-presenters had also been caught up in it.

“It seems @JeremyClarkson is also appearing in these scam ads. He, too, is not really dispensing fiscal advice. And shouldn’t,” he wrote, adding:

“Now @RichardHammond is also supposedly at it. There’s grifting, and then there’s stretching credibility to the point where it snaps, flies back, and hits you in the plums.”

When he found out he was being used, Clarkson jumped in to confirm that it was all rubbish.

“To be clear. @MrJamesMay and I are not endorsing any kind of crypto currency. I don’t even know what crypto currency is. But it sounds ghastly.” There might be a Clarkson’s Farm, but it seems there is no Clarkson’s server farm.

Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May have all been the targets of scam adverts recently
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May have all been the targets of scam adverts recently - PA

“It’s very annoying,” May tells The Telegraph. “Most people realise it’s utter nonsense, but it only takes a few people to believe it. I reported it over a week ago and still haven’t heard anything. I don’t think X are particularly incentivised to deal with it because I presume these [scammers] are advertisers. I’m quite sympathetic to Elon Musk’s views on freedom of speech, but this is fraud.”

Celebrities are increasingly powerless against the rising tide of fake advertisements. In the real world, a fake billboard of a celebrity would be easy to spot and take down. Online, it can be hard to know they even exist; as they may be targeted specifically at certain demographics. Clarkson, May and Hammond are not the only famous names to have been unwillingly conscripted by fraudsters. After the death of Hairy Biker Dave Myers, scammers set up a fake page asking for donations to his family.

Apart from being middle-aged white men, the examples above have a certain overlap in terms of reputation: all are thought of as blokeish and reliable, perhaps not the most glamorous celebrities out there, but the kind of people who would never scam you. The same is even more true of Martin Lewis, the founder of

“If I was a scam crook I would choose Martin Lewis because you immediately think of him when you think of money saving or financial propriety,” May says. “I don’t think you’d think of me, Jeremy Clarkson or Richard Hammond. We’re famous for wasting money.”

Indeed, Lewis’s face has become such a byword for fake adverts that his profile picture on X now has “I DON’T DO ADS” emblazoned across his forehead. These fakes began on MSN News and Yahoo, before migrating to social media. Lewis has campaigned tirelessly on this subject, as on so many others, and fought to have scam ads included in the Online Safety Act, which became law last October. There are so many scams on Facebook and Instagram that, as The Telegraph reported earlier this month, it is estimated that one in 50 of all crimes committed in England and Wales now originate on the platforms.

Martin Lewis, founder of the website Money Saving Expert, has also been the unwilling face of fraudulent ads
Martin Lewis, founder of the website Money Saving Expert, has also been the unwilling face of fraudulent ads - Shutterstock

“Our provisional research estimates that 80 per cent of scam ads involving celebrities feature me or Elon Musk,” Lewis says. “Most of the others that we see are click testing. Don’t think of dodgy, unsophisticated criminals sitting in a corner; these are more like criminal digital marketing agency types. They’ll put different people out to see if they generate the right clicks. Like anything else, as well as the peak figures, you want variety, because different people attract different things. [The Grand Tour presenters] have probably done reasonably well.

“The advantage of them over someone like me is they have more international reach. The advantage of me is that financial scams are close to what I do for a living. I think they’re always looking for new ones.”

As technology has improved, so has the quality of the fakes: as Lewis’s website states, today there are now computer-generated videos of Martin which are “terrifyingly convincing.”

“[Being scammed] ruins people’s lives,” Lewis says. “It destroys their finances, destroys their self-esteem, it can absolutely knock people’s mental health on a temporary or permanent basis once they realise they’ve given away a huge chunk of their life savings.

Ilya Brovin, chief growth officer at Sumsub, a company that provides verification and transactional monitoring technology, says it’s no accident that these scams are using older celebrities; they are more likely to lure in less tech-savvy older victims. “Using middle-aged, or even slightly older, figures [like James May], could potentially be targeted at people who are very used to phone calls, or believing what they see in media,” he says, “as opposed to some of the younger ones who are used to the fact that you can’t really trust it.”

Crypto is an especially appealing prospect, he says, because the field is so unregulated. According to Sumsub’s statistics, 88 per cent of deepfake fraud attempts target the crypto industry, while there was a 128 per cent increase in deepfake crypto fraud in 2023. “[Crypto] is completely decentralised and not tied to any jurisdiction, and because of that it’s particularly targeted [by scammers],” says Brovin. “It’s hard to trace and hard to recover your money from.”

It does not help that so many real celebrities, from Matt Damon to Gwyneth Paltrow and Larry David, have been legitimately involved in cryptocurrency-related advertisements. If it is good enough for Kim Kardashian – who paid more than $1m to settle charges that she had not been forthcoming about having been paid to promote a cryptocurrency token in 2021 – then surely it is good enough for James May, an innocent browser might think.

Matt Damon is one celebrity who has appeared in a cryptocurrency advert
Matt Damon is one celebrity who has appeared in a cryptocurrency advert - REUTERS

A big question is how much responsibility big tech firms, such as X and Meta, Facebook’s parent company, should bear for stopping the flow of scams on their sites.

Brovin says that while regulators could force big tech companies to do more to regulate these adverts – using AI to catch AI – educating vulnerable people about the dangers of such ads is just as important. “We’re talking about unsuspecting people who don’t have the technology to [counter the scams],” he says. “For them, it’s about being aware, and educated.

“On a broader scale, it used to be the case that you could believe what you see,” he adds. “That was the ultimate source of truth. It’s no longer the case. Once society accepts that, then you are back to the days of more curated journalism, where you don’t trust something because you saw it, but because it comes from a trusted source.”

For Lewis, the situation is clearer. “Very simply, until we make it cost big tech more money to publish scam ads than they make from publishing scam ads, we will not stop scam adverts. I’m not saying they encourage scam adverts, I’m just saying they provide an easy and quick ability for people to advertise on their platform. The scams slip in under that. They could make it more difficult to advertise, but that would make it more difficult for the legitimate and illegitimate.”

In other words the next time you see an online ad where May, Clarkson or Hammond are trying to flog you something, it pays to be wary. Even if it seems like a reasonably priced car.